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Saturday, September 19, 2009


> ROSH HASHANA DAY 2009/5770
> The sages taught that there are no extra words in the torah. I think
> the sages were right and the irony is that it will take me three
> sermons with lots of extra words to prove it to you. My proof text
> for these three linked yontiff sermons is a single Hebrew word, lecha,
> which means "for yourself" and on the surface lecha seems to be a
> completely superfluous word in every Torah verse where it appears.
> For example, in Genesis chapter 12, the first text we shall consider
> today, God commands Abram, his name had not yet been changed to
> Abraham, to leave his homeland in Haran (present day Syria) and travel
> to Canaan, the newly promised homeland for the Jewish people. God
> calls to Abram, "Lech lecha meiarzecha u'meimoladecha u'mebeit avicha
> el ha aretz asher ani erecha." "Go for yourself from your land and
> from your culture and from your father's house to the land I will show
> you." God could have said, "lech m'artzecha" go from your land. The
> extra word lecha "go for yourself" adds nothing--or does it? I
> believe that lecha is not extra but essential. I believe lecha is the
> key to understanding what it means to be deeply Jewish, not just
> Jewish by birth or bagels, but Jewish for yourself--lecha. Lecha is
> the perfect proof that there are no extra words in the Torah.
> The command to Abram teaches us the first meaning of lecha: the first
> way to become Jewish for yourself is to love Zion.
> Abram's Jewish journey begins the same way each of our Jewish journeys
> begin, with a call to Zion. I say Zion and not Israel because the
> land that is the land of Israel has had many historical names, Canaan,
> Judea, Palestine and Israel (in fact Israel in the Bible is the name
> of the Jewish people not the land), but spiritually, religiously the
> land has always had just one name, Tzion, Zion. 154 times in the
> Tanach the land is called Zion. However, Zion is not just the name of
> the land promised to Abram by God. It is the land promised to us
> through Abram. Before we were given a law code, before we were given
> a set of beliefs and customs and rituals, before we were given lox and
> bagels and cholent and tzimis and rugelach and petchaw (cow's foot
> borsht--don't ask) we were given Zion. Zion is the beginning of any
> serious Jewish journey. Zion is the foundation for any thick and rich
> and real sense of personal Jewishness. To find yourself as a real Jew
> you must find your way to Zion.
> Being a lover of Zion is closely related but is not the same as being
> a Zionist. The dream of Zion is a religious belief. Zionism is a
> political movement. For some ultra orthodox Jewish sects, like the
> Satmar Hasidim, the dream of Zion is actually a reason for opposing
> the State of Israel. They believe that Zion can only be made real on
> earth by the Messiah, and Herzl and Ben Gurion were not the Messiah.
> I think their views and their actions are not just wrong but actually
> a perversion of Judaism and an nightmare in the dream of Zion.
> ON the other end of the religious and political spectrum was early
> Classical Reform Judaism which, until the 50s actively opposed the
> State of Israel as a source of dual loyalty for American Jews and as a
> particularistic anachronism for what they believed was a
> universalistic Reform Judaism. Both these religious objections to the
> actual State of Israel embrace the dream of Zion but reject the way
> the dream has become real in the world.
> Both are blind to the way Israel has transformed modern Jewish life.
> Satmar is still mired in the 17th century and Reform Judaism has
> finally embraced the religious meaning of the State of Israel despite
> its unfortunate resolutions condemning Israel that have the effect of
> undermining support particularly among our youth, and emboldening
> Israel's enemies.
> What we must all remember and embrace is the reality of a Jewish state
> that has transformed Jewish life while also remembering that Zion is
> the dream of a land that will transform the world .In the words of the
> prophet Isaiah 2:3, ki mitzion tetze torah u'davar adonai
> mirushalayim, "For the torah shall go forth from Zion and the word of
> the Lord from Jerusalem." The State of Israel is incomprehensible
> except as a part of that dream. The question is, can we and can our
> children still dream the dream of Zion and so strenghten our roots and
> our faith? Beyond giving to the UJA or AIPAC, will you allow the
> dream of Zion to be for you, lecha?
> For the oldest generations here in this room my question must seem
> totally absurd. How could a Jew not love Zion? You, the members of
> what Tom Brokaw called the greatest generation, you are the ones who
> remember a world without Israel. You are the ones who raised money
> for a state that did not yet exist. You remember the little blue
> pushkes for the JNF on your grandmother's table. Some of you saw in
> your childhood in Europe what Herzl saw in the Dreyfus trial in Paris
> at the end of the 19th century, that there was no future for the Jews
> of Europe. You smelled the chimneys. Your support for Israel was
> unquestioned and constant, and many of you have done a wonderful job
> teaching your children and grandchildren about the dream and the debt
> it imposes on every Jewish person to support the State of Israel and
> expose her enemies.
> However, today the love of Zion is a besieged and imperiled Jewish
> dream. I never thought I would say this, and saying it makes my soul
> shiver, but today for many Jews the dream of Zion does not include
> them, and this has seriously weakened the State of Israel, decreased
> Jewish identity, and fractured Jewish solidarity world wide. The
> severing of the Jewish connection to Israel particularly among the
> young is a nightmare in the dream God dreamed for the children of Abram.
> The most important Jewish task of our time is to reinvigorate the
> dream of Zion among young Jewish dreamers. New surveys indicate that
> 30% of 20-30 year old Jews felt that that the destruction of the State
> of Israel would not be a personal catastrophe for them. It's not that
> they seek Israel's destruction, actually it is worse. They would be
> unmoved by Israel's destruction. Israel can survive any external foe,
> but it cannot survive the disconnection of young Jews from Zion.
> The greatest success story in the effort to restore the fading dream
> of Zion among young Jews is Birthright. To date, the Birthright trips
> to Israel have brought almost a quarter of a million young Jews to
> Israel so that they might rediscover Zion. Its results are generally
> positive, but mixed. It takes more than a ten day trip to Israel to
> revive a dream. Most love the trip but the follow up has been spotty
> and often unsuccessful. The reason for this is how they go. They are
> going to Israel and they should be going to Zion. The religious
> element of the land is often left out of their orientation lectures
> and itineraries in favor of bar crawling in Tel Aviv and swimming in
> the Dead Sea. The problem with including a religious element in the
> Birthright trips is of course deciding which flavor of Judaism you
> will choose. Now there is a controversy that the follow up program
> Birthright Next is being monopolized by orthodox Judaism. This is
> good because it is at least a religious effort but bad because it does
> not respect or reflect the diversity of modern Jewish religious life.
> As a result the birthrightarians are often spiritually short changed.
> The problem with Birthright, from my own personal perspective is that
> these kids do not have a chance to learn about Zion from Nelson
> Glueck, and sadly Nelson is dead. Rabbi Nelson Glueck, Ph.D. was my
> teacher, my mentor, my rabbi who convinced me to become a rabbi and to
> study in Israel and (in the hardest thing he ever got me to do) to eat
> pita bread cooked over a camel dung fire in a Bedouin camp in the
> Judean wilderness.
> Nelson was a spy, the head of the OSS in the Middle East during WWII,
> and in fact the model for Indiana Jones. Nelson was a distinguished
> biblical archeologist who discovered King Solomon's mines and Nelson
> was the president of Hebrew Union College the seminary which ordains
> Reform rabbis. In my first visit to Israel during my sophomore summer
> in college in 1966, Nelson took me up to the roof of the HUC building
> on King David Street and pointed to the old city which had not yet
> been liberated. He looked through me with his deep blue eyes resting
> under the shade of his arching eyebrows and said,, "The Arabs believe
> that the temple mount is the axis mundi, the omphilos, the navel of
> the universe. They believe that the universe was created from
> Jerusalem. Well, we Jews believed that first. Yehudah Ha-Levi taught
> that Jerusalem is the place where Heaven and Earth kiss, and I believe
> it too." That day on the rooftop changed my Jewish life. That day
> the dream of Zion entered my heart and my soul. I did not learn
> anything new on that rooftop. I felt something new on that rooftop.
> I felt my Jewish roots sink into the soil of Zion and the dream of
> Zion. Zion is the place where the Jewish universe and the universe of
> the world intersect. Zion is the place God pointed to when he said
> lech lecha to Abram. Zion was the Jewish sacred space.
> Every great world religion is rooted in a sacred place. Hinduism is
> rooted in India, indeed Hindu means India. Islam is rooted in Mecca.
> The Lakota Sioux religion is rooted in the Black Hills of South
> Dakota. The Rastafarians are rooted in Ethiopia which they call
> Zion. The dream of Zion is the Jewish version of the universal
> religious dream of sacred space.
> For two thousand years in the Diaspora we Jews have forgotten about
> sacred space. We have sanctified sacred time for two thousand years
> since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the first
> century. We sanctify communal time through holidays and through rites
> of passage, but we have lost a sense of sacred space. Sacred space
> roots us in the earth. Most people can see the value of sacred space
> when they see the Native American rituals or when they see Hindus
> bathing in the Ganges or when they see Muslims at the Kabah stone in
> Mecca, but for some reason many Jews cannot admire in our own
> tradition, the sacred space we instantly admire in other tribes and
> traditions.
> There are, sadly, no effective arguments to convince a person of the
> importance of sacred space. You must go up to the rooftop and have a
> teacher point it out to you. You must see the light of Jerusalem as
> different than any other light in any other place. You must touch the
> stones of the kotel and feel their warmth as different than the warmth
> of any other stones. You must travel half way around the world to
> Israel and get off the plane and feel in some real way that you are
> not a visitor but that you are home.
> I know that to many of you this may all sound quite tribal, and my
> response is, "Yes it is tribal, but you are a part of this tribe."
> And what do you think a bris is? Isn't that tribal enough for you.
> And how about blowing a hollowed out ram's horn? That is also a
> tribal ritual. Religions are not just a collection of intellectual
> beliefs. They are the record of the collective wisdom of the tribal
> elders. And one of the pieces of wisdom is that we did not come from
> anywhere, we came from Zion and that we will return there all of us
> some day at the end of time. If you are serious about your Jewish
> identity, you must come to a realization that being Jewish is partly
> about coming from Zion. You must believe and know that we are bound
> to that land and also bound by that land.
> The most contemptible name for Jews in Europe was luftmentchen, "air
> people". A luftmench was a rootless cosmopolitan who had traded in
> authenticity for assimilation. Surrendering the dream of Zion is like
> cutting the string on a balloon and watching it float away on the
> winds of fashion and fate. Now of course the rootless cosmopolitan
> can retort, "I am happy to cut the string. I am a citizen of the
> world. I do not need a homeland." Herzl's counterargument was that
> you need a homeland to be safe.
> This is still true for many oppressed Jews in the world. I remember a
> little Ethiopian Jewish boy named Ari drawing a crayon picture of a
> smiling dog in a nursery school absorption center in Israel. I asked
> him why the dog was smiling and he answered me, "Because the dog knows
> that I do not have to eat him." Part of the dream of Zion is
> concrete. Part of that dream, we must never forget, is to create and
> sustain and protect a real and safe place where a real little boy
> named Ari can crayon a picture of a smiling dog that he does not have
> to eat.
> Now we generally do not eat dogs and so, in addition to Herzl's
> argument from safety for the dream of Zion, there are other reasons
> for each of us, safe in this land of freedom, to embrace a Jewish
> identity that is rooted in Zion.
> In these perilous times building our Jewish identity on the
> foundations of a love of Zion is also building our identity on the
> foundations of freedom. Since long before 9/11 but absolutely since
> then the war of the jihadists is a war against all those who love Zion
> and the promise of freedom that is the heart of the dream. Detaching
> oneself from the struggle to defeat the enemies of Israel is at one
> and the same time detaching oneself from the struggle to defeat
> worldwide Islamic jihadism. This is why many non-Jews today also
> support for the dream of Zion. In other times, many Jews thought it
> was safe to melt into the cosmopolitan masses and surrender the dream
> of Zion. The fight to defeat jihadists demands that all people join
> all Jews in taking up the dream of Zion as our dream for freedom and
> victory. Today every patriot must become a spiritual Zionist. All
> the dreams of freedom in our time go through Zion. Our choice is
> simple and brutal. We are rooted in the defense of Zion or the dream
> of freedom from terrorism will become a nightmare for the entire free
> world.
> Finally, on a very personal level, whether you know it or not, the
> dream of Zion is an ineluctable part of each and every Jewish person.
> In Yiddish it is called a pintele yid which literally means a Jewish
> spark. It refers to that irreducible Jewish part within us that
> cannot be erased. The reason that on visits to Israel this spark can
> be and has been fanned into a roaring Jewish fire of faith and
> fidelity is that the spark was always in us. It is a spark from God
> in Zion. This is why loving Zion is not just something you ought to
> do to become more deeply Jewish; it is something you have to do to
> become more deeply Jewish. Zion is not the only spark in our Jewish
> souls, but it is the first spark to live in us and the last spark to
> die. When God commanded Abram, lech lecha, we must feel that God
> commanded each and every one of us. God gave Zion to the Jewish
> people and through us to the world. This means that God gave Zion to
> you--lecha.
> The dream of Zion is also the last dream we will dream at the end of
> our life here on planet earth. The Jewish mystics, the mekubalim,
> taught about gilgul haneshamot. They taught that there are tunnels
> under the earth. When we die our soul travels through these
> subterranean tunnels until they arrive at a place under the Temple
> mount, directly under the Holy of Holies. From there, from Zion, all
> souls ascend to the Olam Habah, to Heaven, to the World to Come where
> they are judged and welcomed by God and the angelic hosts. Zion was
> not just the end point of Abrams journey. It is, if this legend of
> the mekubalim is true, the end point for each and every one of us in
> our earthly journey through life and into death and beyond death.
> For two millennia reconnecting to the dream of Zion was very
> difficult. Jews could only go to Israel as guests of the overlords of
> land--the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans, the Arabs and the Ottoman
> Turks--and this made the choice of journeying to Zion perilous. And
> in the lands of our dispersion we were never free to choose to leave
> the Jewish tribe the way we are free to leave it today. Our Jewish
> identity was forced upon us by antisemitism, but after May 18, 1948
> and especially after June 7, 1967 we were free to see all of Zion not
> from a rooftop, but with our touch and our tears. So the choice of
> lech lecha is particularly poignant and powerful now. Our decision to
> take Zion into our personal Jewishness, into our hearts and our faith
> and not just to acknowledge it as a part of our ancient and hoary
> history is now both possible and pressing in a way it has never been
> before in all of Jewish history. This choice, born of our dream of
> Zion and the courage of Israeli freedom fighters, is our choice now.
> Two weeks ago 120 coins some of them gold were discovered in a cave in
> the Judean hills. They are from the failed Bar Kochba revolt against
> Roman rule in 135 ce. The coins were Roman but the freedom fighters
> of Beitar melted them and stamped their own insignia on them which
> bore the words "For the freedom of Jerusalem." We cannot hold the
> coins, but we can dream the dream that forged the coins. Put one of
> those coins in your pocket and dream the dream of Zion for yourself.
> It is a dream that finally we can dream when we are awake.
> There are no extra words in the Torah.
> Amen

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